The Chignik River has an early and a late sockeye run. The early run’s escapement is now over 420,000 and the late run’s escapement is now over 220,000 as of July 29.
It’s the first time the early sockeye run has met its minimum escapement since it collapsed in 2018.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries designated the early run as a stock of management concern in March as part of an agreement between the Chignik Intertribal Coalition and the Area M Seiners Association.
The Chignik Intertribal Coalition originally proposed to indefinitely reduce Area M’s harvest around the Shumagin Islands by about half until the Chignik River passes the early run’s minimum escapement goal.
But the board’s final decision is a compromise that will allow Area M fishers to harvest at full capacity once the Chignik early run is no longer a stock of management concern.
The president of the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, George Anderson, was one of the people who supported that change.
“The first attempt at having this, possibly, might have worked because we finally hit our lower end of our escapement goal for our early run this year and have achieved our late run escapement goal,” he said.
Area M is a mixed stock fishery. The northern part of the area fishes from Port Heiden along the Alaska Peninsula to Unimak Island. The southern part of the fishery sits west of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula, stretching to Unimak Island.
Fishermen there catch salmon swimming to rivers and lakes in that area, but they also harvest fish headed to spawning grounds further away such as the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Bristol Bay and Chignik areas.
Anderson said while the factors that determine Chignik’s escapement are likely more complex than just Area M’s harvest, he thinks it could be a major factor.
“It’s very possible that these restrictions benefited our area and allowed for fish to escape,” he said.
Anderson said he’s excited about the new strategy. But he said the Chigniks will need more support in order to have a sustainable commercial fishery.
“We do have some proposals in for this upcoming winter’s meeting and we will be asking for additional changes,” he said. “So we can not only achieve escapement but possibly get some yield and some harvestable surplus in our area.”
Chuck McCallum is the Lake and Peninsula Borough Fisheries Advisor. He also thinks the closure was just one factor in this year’s higher returns. The forecast was also higher.
“I have no doubt at all that Chignik escapement goals were met and partly with the help of those closures there,” said McCallum. “We’re dealing with a natural system and so the interception is part of it and nature’s the other part. And we do the best we can with what we’re given.”
McCallum added that reduced harvest near the Shumagin Islands specifically was likely a major factor in Chignik’s returns this year.
“If the Shumagin Islands had been included in the Chignik area, then when Chignik had a bad run, we wouldn’t be allowed to fish in the Shumagins because there’s Chignik sockeye that are being harvested there and they’d be protecting those fish just like they would be protecting them if they were in in the lagoon,” he said.
Kiley Thompson is the President of the Area M Seiners Association.
Thompson says the association agreed to the change because he and other fishermen want to see Chigniks succeed as well.
“We supported that, because when the stock of concern is lifted, the regulations will be lifted,” he said. “And, you know, we want to see more fish go to Chignik – it benefits everyone,”
But Thompson says Area M communities also depend on salmon, and he’s wary of further fishing restrictions.
“Without the salmon fisheries, healthy salmon fisheries, these communities are absolutely going to fail,” he said.
He says the reduced fishing time has already been difficult for fleets on the south side of the peninsula.
“I’m sure the (Bristol) Bay and the North Peninsula systems are doing really well, but on the south side, we normally have a pretty robust sockeye fishery and this year we don’t,” he said.
Thompson says he’s glad the Chigniks are getting a stronger return of sockeye this year, but he’s doesn’t think it is all due to the reduced harvest in Area M.
“If the Area M fishery was going to destroy other fisheries, it would have done so in its previous 100 years of existence,” he said.
Thompson isn’t the only one skeptical about whether Area M’s reduced fishing time has influenced Chignik’s returns. Carl Burnside became Fish and Game’s Chignik area management biologist in April. The previous biologist, Reid Johnson left the department earlier this year to work in a different department.
Burnside says while he’s new to the position, he’s unsure of how much the Area M changes affected Chigniks’ Early Run escapement counts.
“It’s really difficult for us to know, one way or the other if that is something that is helpful,” he said.
He says he thinks it’s more likely that improved spawning conditions have helped boost returns.
“We think it’s more likely that the biggest thing helping it out is just that rearing conditions improved in fresh and saltwater,” he said.
Most of the fish this year were the offspring of the low runs in 2018 and 2019. Burnside says this could be a turning point for the Chignik fishery.
“Assuming that they have favorable conditions going forward, then this run will produce a much larger one four or five years from now that should be harvestable,” he said.
Anderson, with the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, says that until the fishery has fully recovered, he hopes the Board of Fish will continue to consider further support.
“It was the Board of Fisheries’ responsibility to share the wealth when you know when fish are coming back good,” he said. “But it’s also their responsibility to share the burden of conservation across all users.”
The next Board of Fisheries finfish meeting for Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula is set for February.